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Breaking Down Racial Barriers Through Music

For the week of Monday November 5, 2001

On November 7, 1941, Portia White made her formal musical debut at Eaton Auditorium in Toronto. This recital began a remarkable singing career that symbolized the breaking of social barriers for African Canadians.

Zion Baptist Church, in Truro, N.S. where White's father was a pastor

Zion Baptist Church, in Truro, N.S.
where White's father was a pastor

© Parks Canada / CIHB

White was born in Truro, Nova Scotia, on June 24, 1911. As the daughter of a minister, she had ample opportunity to do what she loved best - sing. She joined the church choir at age six, and eventually directed it. Influenced by her father who fought segregation in Nova Scotia, his daughter learned that there was nothing between her and her heart's desire. Around 1937-38, the Halifax Ladies Musical Club noted her special talent, and arranged for her to attend the Halifax Conservatory of Music regularly.

Ernesto Vinci, a leading European operatic baritone, taught White at the conservatory. She developed poise and confidence, and her talent flourished. In the summer of 1941, Edith Read, a principal in Toronto, visited Halifax. Hearing White sing, Read arranged for her to perform at Eaton Auditorium. The night of her performance, singing a repertoire of classical pieces and powerful spirituals, White's rich voice charmed the crowd.

Advertising Material Produced by Columbia Concerts, Inc.

Advertising Material Produced by
Columbia Concerts, Inc.

© Public Archives of Nova Scotia /
MG 100, Vol. 245, 15a

At a time when it was difficult for Canadian singers, let alone African Canadian singers, to compete in international circles, Portia White succeeded, delighting audiences in Canada, the United States, the Caribbean and Central America. In Panama, she was given a gold medal for her distinguished cultural services and for the promotion of human relations. Unfortunately, White stopped performing in 1948, as her voice was unable to stand the strain of performing. White supplemented her income by teaching music, returning to the stage periodically. She even performed for Queen Elizabeth II in 1964. On February 13, 1968, after a long battle with cancer, Portia White died.

Never having made any formal recordings, White has remained an obscure figure in Canadian history. Nevertheless, she stands as a strong cultural symbol for Black Nova Scotians. Her kind nature made her well received almost everywhere she went, and her success helped break down racial discrimination in Canada.

In 1995, Portia White was designated a person of national historic significance.

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